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Olsi Jazexhi


The Bektashis in History

The Bektashi Tarikah of Dervishes that nowadays is known as a Muslim religious
community in Albania (Komuniteti Bektashian), is an Islamic Sufi order (tariqat) that
embraces a considerable portion of the Muslim population of Albania. This tariqat is
believed to have originated with Haji Bektash Veli (d. ca. 1290), an Islamic saint who
lived in Anatolia in the second half of the 13th century. Bektashi legends maintain that
Haji Bektash became the “patron saint” of the Janissaries during the reigns of Orhan or
Murat I and played a leading role in the Islamization of young Christian recruits from the
Balkans who had found place in the Ottoman army.
Many scholars believe that Haji Bektash Veli appeared among the dervishes of
Anatolia during the 13th century and was most likely a disciple of Baba Ishak, a figure
who revolted against the Seljuks in the 1240s. Sami Frashëri, a notable muhib (affiliate)
and scholar of Bektashism in Albania, claimed that Haji Bektash Veli was one of the
lofty awliya’ (saints), and that he originated from the city of Nishabur in the Persian
province of Khorasan. Haji Bektash Veli received his knowledge from Luqman Parandah
and later journeyed to Anatolia. During his lifetime the saint is said to have met Sultan
Orhan (ruled from 1326-1359 CE) and even blessed the newly-formed Janissary Corps,
although such late dates are problematic. Even though he is considered to be the first pir
of the Bektashis, the Bektashi order itself was established by a Sufi master named Balim
Sultan (d. ca 1520 CE), who organized the order and built the mother tekke (the Pirevi,
the central lodge of the order) in the central Anatolian town now know as Hacıbekaş.1

Shemsedin Sami, Qamus ul-Alam, Istanbul 1889, vol II, p. 1332
According to Frashëri, the Bektashi order was transformed into a real tariqah at
the beginning of the 16th century by the grand master Balim Sultan, who is held as the
“Second Pir”, or high master, of the order.2 With Balim Sultan, the Bektashi order
developed into an organization with a highly structured and centralized hierarchy. While
Bektashi doctrine is heterodox in disposition and its creed closer to Shi’i Islam rather
than normative Sunni Islam, the Ottoman state and its ulama tolerated the order’s
presence in the empire for a long time. Partially thanks to its patronization of the
Janissary corps, the Bektashis made considerable grounds in spreading their mystical way
among the Muslim population of the Balkans,3 particularly in the rugged areas of
southern Albania and northern Greece.
Scores of orientalists have claimed that the attitude of Bektashis towards Islam is
marked by their disregard for the externals of Islamic ritual and worship, a point which
most Bektashis reject as a misleading notion.4 Their acceptance of the Shari’at (Islamic
law) as witnessed by British scholar John Kingsley Birge5 has been robustly verified by
Albanian Bektashis, such Baba Selim Kaliçani and Baba Rexhepi (d. 1995).6 Baba Selim
noted that Bektashis not only perform their daily prayers (namaz) in mosques or their
meydans and believe in the Shari’at, but they perform two more recommended prayers at
morning and noon.7
Doctrinally speaking, the Bektashis can be considered a sect of Shi’ism, even
though some people confuse them with Sunni Islam.8 As with the Twelver Shi’i school of
Iran, Bektashis accept the Twelve Imams, and hold Ja’far as-Sadiq (d. 765 CE) as their
most important imam. The Bektashi doctrine has been aptly summarized by the
distinguished national poet Naim Frashëri - perhaps the most well-known muhib in
Albania - as follows:

The Bektashis believe in the True and Mighty God, in Muhammed – Ali,
Hadijah, Fatimah, Hasan and Husein. They believe in the twelve imams

Bektashiyya, Encyclopedia of Islam, Brill Academic Publishers, 2003
S. Shaw, History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Cambridge University Press 1976, p. 187
Baba Selim Kalicani, Testamenti Bektashian, pp. 60 – 66
John Kingsley Birge, The Bektashi Order of Dervishes, London: Luzac Oriental. Reprint: 1994, p. 107
see for example: Rexhebi, Baba. 1970. Misticizma Islame dhe Bektashizma. New York: Waldon Press.
Testamenti Bektashian, p. 48
Norris, Harry T. 1993. Islam in the Balkans: religion and society between Europe and the Arab world.
London: Hurst, p. 89
that are: Imam Ali / Imam Hasan / Imam Husein / Imam Zeynel Abedin /
Imam Muhammed Bakir / Imam Jafar al Sadik / Imam Musa Kazim /
Imam Ali Riza / Imam Muhammed Teki / Imam Ali Neki / Imam Hasan
Askeri / Imam Muhammed Mehdi.9

However unlike mainstream Shi’is, Bektashis see their connection with the
mystical path via Imam Musa al-Kazim (d. 799 CE), and Haji Bektash is portrayed as his
The Bektashis mourn Imam Husayn and the martyrs of Karbala’ as the other
Shi’is do. Their special mourning period is called the ma’tam, and it is a ritual of fasting
and lamentation that lasts from 1st to the 10th of the Islamic month of Muharram. Apart
from the ma’tam the Bektashis of Albania have developed a number of other, more
localized, celebrations. One of them is their yearly pilgrimage in August to Mt. Tomor,
where they offer kurbans in memory of ‘Abbas ibn ‘Ali – the martyred half-brother of
Imam Husain - who they believe, miraculously flew with his horse from Karbala’ to the
top of this mountain. Another Bektashi celebration is the ancient Persian holiday of
Nawruz that Bektashis believe to be Imam Ali's birthday.
Like all the other Muslims, the Bektashis believe in Allah, the Day of Judgment,
in the angels, the prophets and so on. However their belief in these points is often taken
from the esoteric (bâtin) view rather than the exoteric (zahir), or literal, view. This is a
point of divergence between normative Islam and Bektashism. Moreover some Bektashis
share some pagan believes which are not found in the mainstream Islam. One of them is
their belief in the reincarnation of the souls and their perfection after the death in a state
like – Nirvana or its punishment in the form of animals. Because of this, Bektashis do not
eat the meat of the rabbit, since they believe that Yazid, the killer of Imam Hussein in the
battle of Karbala, was reincarnated into a rabbit.
Bektashis place much emphasis on the concept of Wahdat ul-Wujud, the "Unity of
Being" as formulated by the great Sufi Ibn Arabi (d. 1240 CE). This has often been
erroneously labeled by Western Orientalists as pantheism, although it is a concept closer
to pantheism. Bektashis base their practices and rituals on their non-orthodox and
mystical interpretation and understanding of the Qur'an and Prophetic practice (Sunnah).
They have no written doctrine specific to them, thus rules and rituals may differ
Naim Frasheri, Fletorja e Bektashinjet, Bukuresht 1896, p. 9
depending on under whose influence one has been taught. They also believe that the
Qur'an has two levels of meaning: an outer (zahir) and an inner (batin) and hold the latter
to be superior and eternal.
Even though academics have tried to link the Bektashi form of Islam with
Christianity and claim that Bektashis believe in a trinity reminiscent of Christianity, their
belief in one is not the same. While it is true that in a number of their supplications
(du’as), Bektashis mention the names “Allah – Muhammed – Ali” in a single breath, they
view Allah as the creator, Muhammed as the path-maker and Imam Ali and Haji Bektash
Veli as guides. The majority of Bektashis would probably not be at ease being described
as trinitarians, at least not in the Christian sense,10 since their mention of “Allah –
Muhammed – Ali” is part of their belief in the concept of Wahdat al-Wujud (Unity of
Being). At the beginning of the 20th century, Bektashis rigorously rejected the attempts of
a Greek Bektashi, a certain Baba Kaso, who wanted to introduce the formula “Ati, biri,
shejti” (the father, the son and the holy ghost) into their belief.11
Since its organization by Balim Sultan the Bektashi order has possessed a
structured religious hierarchy. At present, its supreme leader is the dedebaba – or –
kryegjysh - the “great-grandfather”, who usually is supported in his mission by
individuals known as dedes or ‘grandfathers’ (also known as khalifahs). Under these
dedes are the babas, the dervishes who head the tekkes and are qualified to give spiritual
guidance (irshad). Then we find the normal dervishes, then the muhibs (members that
have given their oath to the order) and finally the ashiks, who are the sympathetic laity. In
the modern history of Albania, the muhib grade has often been more influential in the fate
of the order than the babas or dervishes themselves. One such example of such a muhib is
Naim Frashëri, who is held by the present day Albanian Bektashis as their greatest

The Bektashi dervishes wear a white cap (taj) consisting of four folds and twelve
gores. The number four symbolizes the four stations of the mystical path, which are:

1. Shari’ah (the outer law)

Testamenti Bektashian, pp. 46 – 48
Ibid, p. 207
For more see Ger Duijzings (2005), Qerbelaja e Naim Frashërit: Feja dhe politika në Shqipëri, Feja dhe
Shqiptaret, Përpjekja, nr.20, pp. 44 – 57
2. Tariqah (the inner path)

3. Ma’rifat (mystic awareness)

4. Haqiqah (Reality)

While the twelve gores point to the number of the Imams as well as the vices to be

1. darkness, 2. forgetfulness, 3. sin, 4. undesiderable taste, 5. hopelessness, 6. beautiful

clothing, 7. animal desire, 8. arrogance, 9. revenge, 10. impatience, 11. the grief that
comes because of failure. 12. forgetfulness of God.13

The Bektashis also claim that the usage of the cap with four folds originated from
the time of Sultan Mahmud II, when babas kept a four folded taj resembling the Tijani
dervishes in order to hide their identity. They began to wear a 12 gored taj again only
during the reign of Sultan ‘Abd ul-Hamid II.14

Bektashism in Albania
The history of the Bektashi Order of Dervishes has fascinated the imaginations of
numerous scholars, writers and poets during the 19 and 20th centuries. Even though the
Bektashi order was established in Anatolia, it made huge inroads in the Balkans during
the last three centuries of Ottoman rule. As mentioned above, the history of the Bektashi
order was closely linked with the Janissary Corps. The Janissaries constituted the core of
the Ottoman army and its members came mainly from Christian backgrounds converted
in Islam were overwhelmingly Bektashis. Known as the “Sons of Haji Bektash” (Haji
Bektash Ogullari), their uniforms, organization and leadership were connected with the
With the destruction of the Janissaries on the order of Sultan Mahmud II in 1826
CE, the Bektashis suffered what they call in their history as ‘gjëma e parë e

Testamenti Bektashian,, pp. 105 – 106
Ibid. Pp. 210 – 211
Birge, pp. 74 – 75
Bektashizmës’ or the first tragedy of the Bektashis.16 Their tekkes and zawiyas (smaller
lodges) were closed, destroyed or handed over to other Sufi orders. Their dervishes
exiled, while a number of Bektashis managed to survive only by converting into
Nakshibendis17 or hiding in the rugged terrain of Western Balkans, or even claiming to
belong to other tarikats, such as Tijanis, Rufais and so on.
Even that the Janissaries seem to have been the main importers of Bektashism in
Albania, the origin of the tariqah remains obscure and often confuses the researcher.
Reliable evidence indicates that the emergence of Bektashism cannot be dated earlier
than the turn of the seventeenth century, which is also consistent with the massive
Islamization of the Albanians. However the Bektashis claim to have been in Albania
before the Ottomans. One of their claims is based on the 13 century legends of Sari
Salltik. In the Vilayetname book of Haji Bektash Veli, Sari Saltik is mentioned as his
disciple.18 Sari Salltik is announced in a number of sources as one of the earliest
dervishes that came in the Balkans for preaching Islam. The famous Ottoman traveler,
Evlija Çelebi, in his book Siyahetname, notes that Sari Salltik took his orders in Turkistan
by Hoja Ahmed Jesevi to go in: "… the lands of the Rum. Go in the place of seven
kingdoms and become famous." The legend also says that Sari Salltik went in Anatolia
together with 700 dervishes19 and later spread the message of Islam into Rumelia. The
Bektashis have inherited by popular folk-stories many legends about Sari Salltik and
claim that he was one of their own. They have built even a tekke on his memory in the
mountain city of Kruja in central Albania. There, they make annual pilgrimages in
memory of his mission and sacrifice.
Apart from Sari Saltik, the tekke of Dimoteka mentioned in a number of sources
seems to have been one of the most important centers for the spread of Bektashism in
Rumelia. Bektashi historians, note that the spread of Bektashism among the Albanians
was made by a number of dervishes, such as Pir Sultan Abdal of Kosova and Shah
Kalendar of Elbasan, who were even martyred for spreading the faith.20 The Bektashi

Selim Kalicani, Bektashizmi si sekt mistik islam, p. 152
Ibid, p. 158
Selim Kalicani, Bektashizmi si sekt mistik islam, p. 187
mythology shows its dervishes, pirs and saints as fighting with the dragons, flying with
horses, challenging the local priests with miracles, converting princes in Islam and
liberating people from injustice and repression.
The first tekke that Bektashis believe to have established near the Albanian
populated areas is the tekke of Thessaly in Greece, established by Durbali Sultan. From
there the Bektashi message spread among the Albanian populated areas of Western
Balkans. Under the leadership of Resmi Baba, the Bektashis established the teke of
Tetova, and later spread in Kërçova, Prizren and Gjakova. In Albania proper the first teke
was that of Gjirokastra built in the 17th century by Asim Baba. Later they built the tekke
of Shemimi Baba in the city of Kruja, the tekke of Elbasan by Jefai Ibrahim Baba etc.21
Bektashis claim that the repercussions of sultan Mahmud II followed them even in
Albania. As a result one of their greatest tekkes, that of Baba Aliko in Berat was burned
by the followers of the sultan.22 Whatever the truth might be, the Bektashis enjoyed great
freedoms and growth in the Ottoman Balkans during the Era of Tanzimat reforms. Birge
notes that by the middle of the 19th century they were very influential with the Ottoman
elites and some claimed that even the mother of sultan Abdul Aziz was a Bektashi.23
The history of Bektashism witnessed a second great turn when the Turkish
Republic was created by Kemal Atatürk. With the banning of all the Sufi orders in 1925,
the Bektashis were forced to abandon their pir – evi (Saint's Home) in Haji Bektash
(between Kayseri and Kirsheir) and migrate to Albania. This period that Bektashis call as
their second ‘gjëmë’ – disaster, led to the transformation of the Albanian part of the order
from a Turkish – Ottoman tariqat into Albanian. The grand-dede of the order, Sali Niazi
Dede, who was Albanian, left Ankara for Tirana in 1931. The newly established Albanian
state that viewed the anti-Turkish version of Bektashi Islam positively, received them
warmly. For preparing the transfer of the teke from Anatolia in Albania, in 28 September
1929 Albanian Bektashis held a grand conference in the Teke of Prishta in Albania under
the leadership of Baba Kamber and established the first modern constitution for the order.
This constitution which was embraced by the Albanian government declared that:

Ibid, pp. 186 – 188
Ibid, p. 188
Birge, p. 80
a. Bektashis are a sect of Islam represented by the institution of
Kryegjyshata in Albania

b. The order is lead by the 1. kryegjysh (arch – dede), 2. the gjyshërit

(dedes), 3. prindërit (babas), 4. the dervishes and 5. other functionaries.

c. The language of the sect is Albanian

d. The Bektashi Sect is administered by six gjyshëri (dedelik): 1. The

Gjyshëri of Kruja, 2. Gjyshëri of Elbasan, 3. Gjyshëri of Korça, 4.
Gjyshëri of Frashëri, 5. Gjyshëri of Prishta and 6. Gjyshëri of

A provision on the constitution was that the arch-dede or other dedes could loose
their job, if they were to come in conflict with the state.25

The political transformation of the Bektashi Tariqat, after its establishment of

their World Headquarters in Tirana was detrimental for the nature of the order. The
newly formed Albanian state that was interested to create a new anti-Turkish Islam –
opposed to Sunnism, used Bektashi’s old dream of creating a state for themselves,26 for
promoting an Albanian version of Islam in the country. As Mehdi Frashëri, one of the
major Bektashi exponents of Albanian nationalism notes, in Albania ‘from four religions
that country has, the Catholic and Bektashi were and are supportive of nationalism.
While the Sunism and Orthodoxy have been against it.’27

The desire of Albanian nationalist to promote Bektashism as a separate religion

from Islam came since 1920, when the first post-Ottoman Albanian government was
created and Bektashis were mentioned and represented as belonging to a different
religious community from the rest of the Muslims. The fact that Bektashi tekes were
centers of anti-Ottomanism during the last days of the Ottoman Empire was used by
Albanian nationalists for creating the myth of their modern nationalism as being
connected with Bektashism. The slogan ‘we are not Turks, nor Giaurs, but Albanians’

Selim Kalicani, Bektashizmi si sekt mistik islam, pp. 190 - 196
Ibid, p. 197
Hasluck, Frederick William (1929), Christianity and Islam under the sultans, The Clarendon press, p.
Mehdi Frashëri (2000b), Historia e lashte e Shqiperise dhe e shqiptareve, Phoenix, p. 48
used by Bektashis was what the new Albanian state needed. Bektashi mühips such as
Naim and Sami Frashëri envisaged the creation of the modern Albania, by excluding
religion from its identity and having Bektashism as its best example. In the book ‘Albania
how it was, is and will become’ written in 1879, Shemsedin Sami is noting:

…true and good Albanians and those who want to save Albania have to put
always the nation before the faith; his brother is not his co-believer, but his co-
national. The real Albanians are true brothers with each other; their brotherhood
should be as strong as nothing can be able to divide or penetrate them. True
Albanians must be like the frankmasons and Bektashis that are true brothers to
each other.28

The desire of the Albanian Bektashi mühips to elevate Bektashism into the level
of a religious community led them to organize a number of congresses. In 1929, they
tried to change the status of Bektashiyah from a sect into that of a religious community.
However they failed, since the Dervishes rejected this label and preferred to see
themselves as a sect of Islam.29 King Zog I who was interested on hosting the Bektashis
in Albania, played an important role on convincing them to place their order in Tirana,
the capital of the new Albanian state. His positive attitude was detrimental on convincing
the Bektashis to finally transfer their World Headquarters from Haji Bektash in Turkey,
in Tirana in 1930. The anti-Turkish myths that Bektashis forged for their order and their
belief in Albanianism seems to have attracted King Zog, for which both he and Enver
Hoxha are sometimes believed to be of Bektashi origin.30

The status of the Bektashi Tariqat was elevated into the level of a religious
community in Albania, only in 1946, when the communists organized the Fourth
Bektashi Congress. The transformation of the Bektashis from a Muslim sect into a
religious community came through the pressure of some Bektashi Babas, such as Baba
Faja Martaneshi and Baba Fejzo that were members of the Communist Party of Albania.
The changes that communism wanted to bring to the Tariqat under the reformist Babas
were out of proportions for the conservative dervishes. When Baba Faja Martaneshi and

Frashëri, 1899, op. cited,, pp. 144 – 145
Selim Kalicani, Bektashizmi si sekt mistik islam, p. 212
(Norton 2001: 194; Clayer 2002: 155-156)
Baba Fejzo pushed the grand – dervish Abaz Hilmi Dede in 1947 to change the celibacy
laws of the order and allow the dervishes to marry and have families, he killed the
reformist babas and than himself.31 After this incident, the communists destroyed the
Tariqat, by executing, imprisoning or removing several babas and dervishes from their
When religious practice was allowed back in Albania in 1990, the Bektashi
Tariqat reestablished itself. However the order today does not have any real
knowledgeable dervish left, with the exception of Baba Selim Kaliçani who passed away
in 2000 and was in conflict with the new inventions of the Bektashi center in Tirana.
The Bektashis operate many tekkes today in Albania. The current head of the
order is Haji Reshat Bardhi and the main tekke is Kryegjyshata of Tirana. While some
15% of the people of today’s Albania are thought to be Bektashis and are concentrated
mainly in the South of Albania, the Tariqat is a very important part of the overall Muslim
community of Albania.

Selim Kalicani, Bektashizmi si sekt mistik islam, p. 228 – 229
A map on the distribution of Bektashis in Albania by H. T. Norris

In Kosova and Macedonia, Bektashis have also some important tekkes and
communities. The most important tekke in Macedonia is the Harabati Baba in Tetova.
After the death of Baba Tahir Emini (1941-2006), the dedelik of Tirana took over the
tekke and appointed Baba Edmond Brahimaj (Baba Mondi), formerly head of the Turan
Tekke of Korçë, to oversee the Harabati Baba Tekke. While in Kosova, the Bektashis
have a tekke in the town of Gjakova under the leadership of Baba Mumin Lama.